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Time the audience spends reading a slide is time spent not listening to you.

Public speaking is a fantastic way to improve your social skills and hirability, and in last month’s column, I explained how user group meetings and technical conferences are an ideal place to do this. I talked about the importance of your topic and the angle of your technical talk, and how to create an outline. This month I’ll explain how to think about your slides, keys to effective presentation, and how to handle common public speaking fears.

How to Think about Slides

Before you create your first slide, consider their role in your presentation. Your slides are not the primary source of information. The words that you speak are why the people are there. You’re not simply putting bulletized summaries of your words on the screen and reading from them. Slides are there to supplement your spoken words, not prop them up.

Keep words on your slides to a minimum. Time the audience spends reading a slide is time spent not listening to you. Anything more than a sentence on a screen means that you’ll lose the audience for a few seconds, and that can be hard to regain.

A slide is also appropriate for showing code listings and technical details not easily translated to English, so long as the audience is not expected to read the entire slide to understand it.

Graphs and charts also make powerful slides if they are truly an example of a picture being worth a thousand words. If your defect rate dropped dramatically over a six month period, a chart showing that is a fine slide. It’s easier to see than to read.

One place it does make sense to have a slide heavy with bulletized text is when wrapping up the talk, or at the end of a section. You can put up a recap of your 3-7 main points that you want the audience to remember. You’ll be verbally recapping as well, but not reading the bullets from the screen behind you.

As to the specifics of creating text and images for the slides themselves, that’s a subject far too large and graphic-heavy for this space. I heartily recommend the book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte.

However, I do strongly recommend that you create your slides in some standard slide software like Keynote, OpenOffice Impress or PowerPoint. Don’t mess with anything other than those three. After you’ve got some slide deck creation experience under your belt, then you can spend hours messing with HTML-and-Javascript-based packages like S5. If you’re a seasoned speaker, you may even decide to try to roll your own homegrown software—and get halfway through it before deciding it’s not worth the hassle.

Prepare for the Big Day

If you’re going to spend the time and energy preparing a talk, whether it’s a five-minute lightning talk at a user group meeting, or a half-day tutorial at OSCON, promote it. Let people know that you’re going to be speaking, when you’ll be speaking, and what your topic will be. Post it to your Twitter feed and flog it on Facebook at least once. Tell your mom and dad, too. You never know who they’ll let know about it.

When you’re done with your talk, people will inevitably ask for a copy of your slides. Make them available online before your talk. Create an account on slideshare.net, and include the URL for it on the last slide of your deck. For example, mine is slideshare.net/petdance. Then upload your slide deck at least an hour before your talk, so it will be sure to have been processed and made available before your talk is over.

Get a presenter’s remote. They’re only about $20 and plug into your computer’s USB port and have buttons for going forward and back in the presentation. When the time comes to advance your slides, you don’t want to have to look down and find the spacebar. Worse, if you’re like me and you walk around the stage (whether it’s an actual raised platform or not), you don’t want to walk back to the podium where the computer lives. If your remote has a laser pointer in it, that’s even better, especially if you are showing code listings. It’s silly to try pointing at a function call in a line of code five feet above your head.

It’s a good idea to get someone to introduce you before you speak. When you’re introduced, it helps put the audience in the frame of mind to like you. They’ll probably even give you polite applause, which feeds that urge.

Don’t wait until five minutes before to ask a buddy to do it. Ask the event organizer if someone will be available to introduce you. Many events will have this set up anyway, and will ask you for a bio.

Write your own bio from the point of view of the listener, and make it related to your talk. Don’t think that you don’t need an introduction because you’re at your local user group and everyone knows you. At least one person in the audience won’t.

Here’s a sample introduction:

Tonight’s talk, “External Penetration Testing of Secure Systems,” will be presented by David Lightman. David has been a programmer and security expert since getting his first IMSAI microcomputer in 1983. He has consulted extensively with NORAD, and is the inventor of cinematically convenient voice synthesis. In his spare time, he enjoys a nice game of chess. Please welcome David Lightman.

This covers all you need. It gives the title of the talk, your name, and some of your credentials. An optional bit at the end gives a human interest factoid. The introduction should have a clear ending so people know when to clap and start liking you.

Handling Speaker Fear

If you’re a first time speaker, chances are you’ve got fears, and you’ll be nervous, but I’m here to assure you that things aren’t as scary as you’re imagining.

The best defense against fear is preparedness. On the day of your talk, make sure you’ve got all the parts and widgets you need. Video adapter, power cords, mouse, whatever it is you need, make sure you have it. Get to the event early so you can set up, and to allow for Murphy’s Law.

Don’t be afraid of being a new speaker, or that you won’t be good enough. Whatever you do, don’t apologize for being a new or nervous speaker. Chances are the audience won’t notice, and if you apologize you’re asking the audience to pay attention to your nervousness.

Don’t fear not knowing enough. You may get a question you don’t know the answer to, but that’s OK. Just say “I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to that,” and move along. If you’re worried about the question eating up too much time, say “I’d be glad to discuss that with you after the talk, but right now we need to keep going,” and move along.

And in Closing...

Public speaking can be a challenge, but that’s the way most things worth doing are. I guarantee that you’ll learn a bit about yourself, and probably the topic you’ll be discussing, by giving a talk. Who knows, you may just find that you have a knack for it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Mark-Jason Dominus and Damian Conway for their help and inspiration in my own public speaking exploits. They’re two of the best speakers I’ve ever seen, and if you get a chance to see either of these two speak, do so, regardless of topic. They’ve also been very giving of advice, and this column and the last wouldn’t have been possible without their guidance over the years. Thanks, Damian and Mark.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through résumés, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area. He blogs at theworkinggeek.com, and can be reached by email at andy@theworkinggeek.com.